A Comparative Review of Gifted Education Quality Standards: Part 2

This is the second part of a post dedicated to a comparative analysis of gifted education quality standards.

As far as I can establish, a total of 10 standards have been developed in six countries since the publication of NAGC’s original district-level Gifted Program Standards in 1998. Two countries – England and the US – have updated and published revised standards. The other four – the Netherlands, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and Wales – have each produced a single edition.

Part One set out a personal perspective on what constitutes a really good set of quality standards, summed up in the paradox of a ‘flexible framework’, offered a basic typology and concluded with the history of their development.

Part Two is a comparative assessment of the 10 standards, concluding with an in-depth review of the content of eight of them.

I will conclude the post in due course with a Coda which examines in more detail the multiple uses to which well-designed quality standards can be put and the significant benefits they can deliver.

Comparative Analysis: Structure and Purpose

We begin with an examination of the shape and structure of the 10 standards. Table 1 sets out the basic factual information, showing the standards in the order of their development.

Table 1

Standard Country Date No. of elements No. of levels
NAGC v1 USA 1998 7 2 (Minimum, Exemplary)
IQS v1 England 2005 14 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)
CPS Netherlands 2005 6 1
CQS England 2007 7 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)
Welsh Assembly Wales 2008 10* 1
LAQS England 2009 13 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)
TKI New Zealand 2009 9 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)*
MSP Saudi Arabia 2009 9 4 (Limited, Developing, Good, Excellent)*
NAGC v2 USA 2010 6 1
IQS v2 England 2010 14 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)


*It could be argued that the TKI standard has five levels, because there is a column devoted to what it means to fall short of the entry level standard, while the improving standard contains two different columns

*The MSP standard explains that schools will be assessed on this 4-level scale but, additionally, one of the elements relates exclusively to schools aspiring to advanced partnership, whereas other schools need only to meet the standards in the eight other elements

*The Welsh Assembly standard divides two of its elements into three significant sub-elements, so it is arguable that it really comprises 14 elements.

The number of levels is typically either one or three, with just a couple of exceptions. In the MSP example, the four gradings are not actually built into the standard, but imposed on a single set of statements. Something similar is found in the Dutch standard, which invites schools to score themselves on a 1-5 scale against each statement.

The inclusion of a ‘not meeting the standard’ column is unique to the New Zealand example and is worthy of wider consideration. It could be helpful to settings considering whether or not they currently meet the entry level statements, giving them additional context for that judgement.

The number of elements within each standard ranges from 6 to 14, with the UK Standards at the upper end of the range and the US and Dutch examples at the lower end.

Table 2, below, shows that there is relatively little common practice in the division into elements or the order in which they appear. (This is also true of the placement of material within specific elements).

Table 2

Identification Standards and progress Conditions for learning Leadership Student identification Learning and development Organisation and policy Professional learning Student achievement A whole school strategy/action plan
Effective provision in the classroom Effective provision in the classroom Development of Learning Policy Professional development Assessment Education and learning Definition Leadership and management Identification strategies and criteria
Standards Identification Knowledge of subjects + themes Ethos and pastoral care Socio-emotional guidance and counselling Curriculum planning and instruction Support and counselling Policies/procedure School ethos A target for improvement of school’s provision/pupils’ performance
Enabling curriculum entitlement + choice Assessment Understanding learners’ needs Resources Program Evaluation Learning environments Communication with parents pupil and environment Resources Teaching and learning Learning styles, teaching approaches, organisational strategies Curriculum offers breadth, depth and flexibility Provision addresses pastoral care
Assessment for learning Transfer and transition Planning Engaging with the community families + beyond Program design Programming Quality improvement and assurance Identification Classroom management Reviews to identify underachievement and support individual pupils
Transfer and transition Enabling curriculum entitlement + choice Engagement with learners + learning Identification Program administration and management Professional development Benefit to other pupils Maori dimension Student personal development Improve the skills of all staff
Leadership Leadership Links beyond the classroom Effective provision in the classroom Curriculum and instruction Cultural diversity Parental involvement Support for exceptionally able
Policy Monitoring and evaluation Learning beyond the classroom Effective Teaching and Learning Commitment to and evidence of Resources including ICT
Ethos + pastoral care Policy Enabling curriculum entitlement + choice Beyond the regular classroom Advanced Partnership Taking account of pupils views + encouraging them to take responsibility for learning       Taking account of parents’ views + encouraging them to take responsibility for supporting their child’s learning; Working with partners to enhance provision
Staff development Ethos + pastoral care Transfer + transition Monitoring action plan and effectiveness of school’s policy.
Resources Staff development Staff development
Monitoring and evaluation Resources Standards
Engaging with community families and beyond Engaging with community families and beyond Monitoring + evaluation
Learning beyond the classroom Learning beyond the classroom

There is no suggestion that those preparing the standards are drawing on a shared understanding of how gifted education practice should be broken down into its constituent parts. Nor is there any evidence to suggest a tendency towards consensus over the 12-year period.

The elements provide a basic architecture for the standard that the authors believe will be logical and rational for the users. There is no particular merit in having a specific number of elements although one can see that the range we have probably marks the parameters of ‘useability’. Arguably, 14 is at the upper end of manageable while six is the barest minimum for such a complex set of processes.

Table 3 shows that the Standards and their supporting resources together identify some 20 underpinning aims and purposes that their gifted education quality standards are intended to address.

There is inevitably a degree of subjectivity in this analysis, since some objectives are more overtly stated than others – and different descriptions of purpose are sometimes provided in different materials, depending on the intended audience.

Self-evaluation and improvement planning by settings are by far the most common and almost ubiquitous.

Table 3

Define the shape and constituent elements of gifted education x
Establish generic understanding across subjects and phases x x x x
Common language for discussion x
Reflection by teachers on their own practice x
Improve pupil and school level achievement x x x
Improve gifted education locally, regionally and nationally x
Set minimum expectations for schools x
Self-evaluation x x x x x x x x x
External assessment x x x x
Improvement planning x x x x x x x x x
Peer review x x x
Curriculum planning x
Professional development x x x x
Innovation x
Advocacy x
Cross-school collaboration x x x
Select schools into a partnership x
Accreditation of schools x
Structure guidance x x
Catalogue resources x x x

The table also demonstrates that, as far as public declaration is concerned, the English quality standards are relatively more ambitious in terms of the number of tricks they seek to take.

This is arguably because the design and development process was tied explicitly to the expansion of a national programme for gifted education and overseen by the body responsible for the country’s wider education policy. The standards were designed with a strategic function, rather than being produced for a specific project or subset of schools, or by an advocacy-driven organisation such as NAGC.

The ways in which the standard could support other aspects of the national programme – and vice versa – were at the forefront of our thinking, as were the opportunities to anchor the standards firmly in other areas of policy. To give an example, we tried very hard to persuade OFSTED, our schools inspectorate, that they should adopt the standards publicly as the basis for inspection judgements in schools.

We were only partly successful. Although the User Guide makes clear that the three levels of the IQS are explicitly aligned with specific OFSTED grades – satisfactory, good, excellent – and the standards are mapped against the self-evaluation framework OFSTED had in place for schools at the time, it was a bridge too far for the fiercely independent inspectorate to adopt entirely a quality framework developed through a process that they did not control.

The substantive point remains that, with the right degree of support and influence, gifted education quality standards can be embedded in the very fabric of education accountability measures, and indeed in many other dimensions of national or state education policy, so making them potentially a very powerful policy lever indeed.

No other country has come closer than England to achieving this outcome.

Comparative Analysis: Content

The remainder of this analysis considers eight of the ten standards (I have excluded the English classroom and local authority quality standards because they add relatively little additional value given their specialist focus. It is worth remembering their existence, however: they explain apparent omissions in the English IQS, which does not need to address in detail matters of pedagogy and supra-school administration because they are covered elsewhere.)

Rather than undertake an exhaustive analysis of every single similarity and difference between the eight examples, I have tried to highlight some of the more interesting variations.

I have also focused on the incidence of wording that appears to invite all settings to follow specific practice – even though this may not be supported universally as best or even effective practice – rather than giving them flexibility to implement the standards as they see fit.

The selection of such ‘non-negotiables’ throws a particularly interesting light on the priorities of the standards’ authors. It is a perfectly valid aim for a quality standard to embed such practice universally, across all settings, though an excessive number of ‘non negotiables’ will inevitably compromise a flexible framework approach.

Some – the Welsh Assembly example springs to mind – contain quite a few of these apparent requirements, others – notably the Saudi MSP standard – are almost bereft of them. Sometimes of course it is hard to tell, for there are several different ways to promote aspects of provision on the face of quality standards while stopping short of absolute compulsion.

I have divided this treatment into sections headed by the name of particular standards, though I have taken the two IQS standards and the two NAGC standards together. Each section also addresses specific themes, so readers will find that they are flitting constantly between standards. I could find no other way to organise the material short of a huge and unreadable grid.

The English IQS (2005 and 2010)

Courtesy of Richard Croft

The IQS contains an explicit requirement for a co-ordinator or lead teacher in each school with overall responsibility for gifted education. In fact this requirement is common to all the standards except the two NAGC versions, which may be explained by their status as district standards. (The 1998 edition does include an oblique reference to a district co-ordinator, specifying that such a post-holder should have appropriate qualifications).

Other ‘non-negotiables’ in the IQS (though they may only apply at certain levels) include:

  • securing through identification a gifted and talented population representative of the whole school population (something similar can be found in the later NAGC standards but this is otherwise unique;
  • supporting those with multiple exceptionalities and the exceptionally able (2005 only). With the exception of NAGC (2010), the former do not seem to get the same positive treatment in any other standards, but the latter feature even more significantly in the Welsh Assembly standards (though nowhere else). Significantly, both references are dropped from IQS 2010. Support for pupils of different cultures and backgrounds is also referenced in the 2005 edition but dropped in the later version;
  • links with local and national providers of out-of-school gifted education (2005 only) replaced in the 2010 edition by a reference to collaboration with other schools. It is as if provision offered by universities and voluntary organisations has become irrelevant given a policy change around this time that shifted English gifted education towards being more school-led.

The English standards are also notable for incorporating expectations about the academic performance of gifted learners. These change subtly between the two editions: the earlier focuses on standards relative to gifted learners in similar schools; the later switches to national averages and also introduces expectations for pupils’ progress. Both refer exclusively to high attainers, who are of course only a subset of the gifted population.

There is nothing as explicit in the later NAGC standards, even though they are built entirely around pupil outcomes. They seem to address every dimension of competence except academic achievement. Students are to demonstrate ‘important learning progress’ but nowhere is this quantified, whether in relative or absolute terms.

The MSP standards do refer to high student achievement , but only in general terms. The Welsh Assembly Standards demand targets for students’ performance as well as for the improvement of the school’s provision, though without setting any kind of benchmark for either.

It may be that the authors of these standards decided to do without such a reference because it was impossible to find a formulation that would apply equally to all gifted learners. But, if we accept that high attainers are a subset of the gifted population, it seems rather absurd for standards (especially those based on outcomes like NAGC 2010) to exclude some sort of expectation relating to their academic achievement.

Conversely, the English standards are typically coy about funding, referring only to ‘appropriate budgets’. The Welsh opt for a similar reference to the school governors ‘allocating appropriate resources’

The first NAGC standards are slightly better, calling for gifted education to be equitably and adequately funded compared with other programmes, and for funding to be tied to programme goals (and adequate to meet them at exemplary level). Similar terminology is retained in the 2010 edition. The other standards are almost silent on this critical issue.

The NAGC Standards (1998 and 2010)

courtesy AlaskaGM Photos

‘Non-negotiables’ include:

  • the evidence base supporting identification should draw on multiple assessments ‘including off-level testing’ and make use of ‘culturally sensitive checklists’ (2010);
  • a personalised assessment profile must be developed for each student (1998);
  • gifted programmes must be ‘an integral part of the general education school day’ (1998);
  • flexible grouping and, ‘suitable adaptations’ which are specified at exemplary level as early entrance, grade-skipping, ability grouping and dual enrolment (1998); by 2010 this is modified to: ‘educators regularly use multiple alternative approaches to accelerate learning’;
  • students interact with educators who meet the national teacher preparation standards in gifted education; educators participate in ongoing professional development to support students’ social and emotional needs (2010).

The US standards are typical in devoting significant attention and space to professional development, although this is clearly an input rather than an outcome.

At exemplary level, the TKI standards require that all teachers in the school have undertaken relevant professional learning, that an induction process is available for new staff, and that gifted education specialists have specialist qualifications.

Similarly, Saudi schools must ensure that a differentiated professional development programme is available for all teachers which incorporates some work on the theory and practice of giftedness and creativity.

In Wales, staff training must cover a range of bases including identification, formative assessment, strengthening pupils’ self-esteem, differentiation, learning styles, thinking skills and problem-solving. Support staff must also receive appropriate training.

While the English standards maintain a curious separation between identification and the assessment of gifted learners, the later US standards sensibly take the view that identification is integral to assessment.

Identification is subsumed within ‘support and counselling by the Dutch, but is almost entirely absent from the MSP standard, presumably on the grounds that it is undertaken external to the school.

The 1998 NAGC standards places heavy emphasis on what they call ‘socio-emotional guidance and counselling’ devoting an entire element to this. All learners must receive guidance to support their socio-emotional development, on top of dedicated guidance and counselling for vulnerable learners.

The phrasing is redolent of a ‘deficit model’ approach, consistent with a strand of US gifted education thinking built on the assumption that gifted students typically have social and emotional ‘issues’. This is redressed somewhat in the 2010 standards where emphasis is rightly placed instead on developing all students’ personal, social, cultural and communications competence, as well as their leadership skills.

There is also another element called ‘Learning and Development’ which addresses students’ personal development, including: self-knowledge and understanding; understanding of and respect for similarities and differences within their peer group; and understanding of their own cognitive and affective development.

Such ‘soft skills’ are almost entirely lacking from either version of the IQS, which merely contain brief references to support for learners’ social and emotional needs and action to combat bullying and stress. The Welsh also tend to concentrate on the more tangible issues within this spectrum, such as careers education and guidance and pupils’ attitudes to learning.

The pastoral support dimension is slightly better developed in the Dutch CPS standards but only the Saudi version rivals the coverage in the later NAGC standards, covering students’ self-esteem, resilience and perseverance, as well as their tolerance and respect for each other.

CPS – Netherlands (2005)

Courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar

The Dutch standards are amongst those with relatively few ‘non-negotiables’ other than expectations that there will be a school co-ordinator, partnerships with higher education and business and links into a regional and national network of schools.

There is some emphasis placed on action planning for improvement, a feature that is also found in the English IQS and, in pronounced fashion, in the Welsh Assembly standards.

But, whereas this tends to foreground SMART targets and data, the Dutch begin a stage earlier, with an expectation that schools with have articulated a vision for gifted education and defined the model of provision they will follow. Only then can an action plan be produced.

New Zealand incorporates something similar: entry level involves developing an appropriate definition of gifted and talented which recognises different types of giftedness.

The CPS standards are particularly noteworthy for the inclusion of an element called ‘Benefits to Other Pupils’ which does not appear in any of the other examples (although there are briefer references to a ‘rising tide lifting all ships’).

TKI – New Zealand (2008)

courtesy of etnobofin

   The TKI standards are again more tightly specified:

  • entry level identification must involve more than two sources of information (eg parents, teachers, peers)       and more than two types of information (eg tests, observations, interviews). A register and individual profiles are required at improving level;
  • exemplary teaching and learning involves the co-construction of differentiated work modules by students and staff, something similar also features in the Welsh standards and in NAGC 2010;
  • out of school provision in improving schools will include the deployment of expert coaches, tutors or mentors.

But the tightest level of specification is reserved for schools’ response to diversity. The TKI standards devotes an entire element to The Maori Dimension and another to Cultural Differences.

Under the former, all schools are expected to demonstrate an understanding of the Maori world view and consultation with Maori staff. At the middle level, Maori theories and conceptions of giftedness should be acknowledged and respected, while exemplary schools should reflect Maori beliefs throughout their provision.

This progression is repeated in the Cultural Differences segment, which causes some unnecessary duplication. It as if inclusion of a separate Maori element of the standard was itself a ‘non-negotiable’, even though a single section could have covered both quite comfortably.

This heavy diet of diversity puts into perspective claims by the authors of the 2010 NAGC standards that they give significant attention to the same issue. The 2010 standards are certainly a big advance on their predecessors, but do not begin to match the Kiwi approach.

One can appreciate the distance between the two by replacing ‘Maori’ with ‘African American’ or ‘Hispanic’ and parachuting the TKI element into the NAGC standards…

MSP – Saudi Arabia (2009)

courtesy of Saudi

We have noted already that there are few ‘non-negotiables’ in the Saudi standards. Perhaps the only substantive example is the reference to a school co-ordinator – a post for a committed key professional working within the school’s senior leadership team who is supported with the time and resources to model best practice, be the resident expert in teaching and learning and act as a key driver in bringing about ‘deep’ change.

The MSP standards are strong on teaching and learning, encompassing much of the material that is covered by England’s separate CQS. They advocate a wide repertoire of teaching strategies, the development of subject knowledge and an understanding of how to use and apply it, student involvement in negotiating their work, collaborative learning, higher order questioning, problem-solving, independent research and a risk-taking culture.

Parental engagement is strongly featured relative to most other standards, and is probably only matched by the Welsh document. A flavour is given by the expectation that:

‘parents are helped to understand the complex nature of ability and and the importance of opportunities and personal motivation in the fulfilment of a child’s potential’

Maintaining a positive school ethos is also prominent, exemplified by a reference to the school community working:

‘together in harmony, upholding a shared set of values such as respect, honesty, courage and responsibility’.

Welsh Assembly (2008)

courtesy of Plaid

The Welsh standards seem rather paternalistic compared with most of the others. The list of ‘non-negotiables’ is relatively extensive, encompassing several of the themes addressed above, such as providing a school co-ordinator, staff training and development, support for the exceptionally able and careers guidance. It even extends to a requirement that learners can school library and IT facilities out of school hours!

This is not in itself an unreasonable expectation, but it is surely too insignificant to feature on the face of the standards.

As one might expect, these standards are very much consistent with NACE policy. There is no reference to accelerative practice or a faster pace of learning, even in the section about supporting exceptionally able learners. Whereas the US standards may seem a little too ready to embrace acceleration, the Welsh are very much the opposite.

Welsh schools should also have:

‘a clear rationale for identification that is inclusive and encompasses all children who have abilities and talents above those normally found in the school’.

There is very strong emphasis on multi-faceted progress monitoring against the required action plan. Alongside the priority placed on parental engagement, a sub-element is also devoted to pupil voice, which is much more developed in these standards than any of the others.

Schools must listen regularly to pupils’ views about the experience of being a gifted and talented pupil, including feedback about their aspirations, what helps them to learn and what barriers exist to their achievement. They must also demonstrate that they have acted on such views.

What Lessons Can We Draw?

It is not my purpose to produce a league table of gifted education quality standards. They must be judged against the objectives set by those who designed them and considered in the very different educational contexts to which they apply.

None of the standards is head-and-shoulders above the rest. All have outstanding features; all have shortcomings. This reinforces the importance of taking a global perspective and reviewing all existing standards whenever a new one is produced. Insularity is never the route to best practice.

But I very much prefer those that come closest to the ‘flexible framework’ ideal, rather than those which seem overly prescriptive and over-detailed.

This optimal approach, while it encompasses the full span of what is important in gifted education, is relatively sparing in its insistence on specific practice, confining such prescription to fundamentally significant issues and a handful of policy priorities.

It is otherwise all too easy to devise standards that become a straitjacket, serving only to constrict the divergence and innovation that is always necessary to improve our shared understanding of what works.

For the fundamental purpose of quality standards must be to support and release the creativity and commitment displayed in every single setting, harnessing it – though loosely – for the ultimate benefit of all gifted learners.

As indicated above, this post will conclude with a Coda dedicated to reviewing the multiple purposes of gifted education quality standards and how these can be pursued simultaneously without compromising each other.

We will look at the score or so which feature in Table 2 above but my own work suggests that there are several others besides. I am at 25 and counting…

Whenever I am asked which gifted education reform has had most impact I always reference quality standards. Six countries to date have understood their power and value. Let’s hope that many more will follow their example.


November 2011

A Comparative View of Gifted Education Quality Standards: Part 1

This post looks at the nature and purpose of gifted education quality standards, reviews the history of their development and draws lessons from a comparative analysis.

It is designed partly as background reading for those interested in developing state or national gifted education quality standards of their own. As far as I can ascertain, no such analysis has ever been published before, although one hopes that the authors of all quality standards produced to date have conducted their own private analysis.

Colleagues in Hong Kong are considering whether to proceed with such standards and this post is partly a spin-off from a consultancy and professional development package prepared specifically for them. In matters of gifted education, Hong Kong often leads where other states follow.

The post is organised into two main sections and a coda:

  • Part 1 sets out my idea of what constitutes a good quality standard, which differs somewhat from most of those in existence, offers a basic typology of quality standards and outlines the history of their development to date;
  • Part 2 is a comparative analysis of eight gifted education quality standards produced in five different countries;
  • The Coda will take a closer look at the many and varied purposes of a well-designed quality standard and will be published a little further downstream.

What is a Good Quality Standard?

There is a difference between describing the nature of extant gifted education quality standards and explaining what such standards should be like.

Paradoxically, the notion of a standard betokens a certain level of precision that does not necessarily coincide with my idea of best practice.

The august British Standards Institute has defined a standard as:

‘A published document that contains a technical specification or other precise criteria designed to be used consistently as a rule, guideline or definition. Standards help to make life simpler and to increase the reliability and the effectiveness of many goods and services we use. They are a summary of best practice…’

But, during several years creating and working with gifted education quality standards, the phrase I have found most neatly captures their fundamental essence is ‘a flexible framework’.

For effective quality standards must be precise enough to:

  • capture, clearly and succinctly, all the elements of effective practice in gifted education at a specified level in the education system; and so
  •  equip all stakeholders with a common language to describe effective practice, so they can communicate effectively with each other.

On the other hand, they must be imprecise enough that they can:

  • apply universally, to every setting, regardless of phase, sector, status, funding or any other variable;
  • reconcile into consensus the wildly differing perspectives of experts – be they practitioners, academics or policy makers – and the full range of other stakeholders; and
  • allow sufficient scope to meet widely varying circumstances, support divergent interpretation, promote innovation and allow for changes to the paradigm and the wider policy context (at least up to the point where they need to be revised).

Hence producing a quality standard should be a careful balancing act between these two conflicting priorities. One is not always convinced that this important principle has been grasped by those charged with their development.

Flexibility in Design and Development

This spirit of compromise is part of a bigger bargain between the centre – typically an educational arm of government – and the myriad of local settings to which the standard applies.

The centre has a vested interest in deploying the quality standards as a policy lever that drives improvement throughout the system – and also as an instrument to push particular priorities that it deems significant (though too many of these will overload the standard, so it needs to be selective).

Meanwhile, local settings are typically seeking a practical tool they can use to evaluate, improve and validate their own practice; an instrument that will support school improvement and professional development alike; and a platform for local partnership and collaboration.

While expert practitioners may be relatively inclined towards pragmatism and eclecticism when developing an understanding and appreciation of what works best in gifted education, expert academics in the research community may be more inclined to argue for a particular model, approach or paradigm in gifted education.

They need to be prepared for the possibility that their most cherished beliefs will not appear on the face of the standard (though the standard can nevertheless accommodate them).

To give an example, it may not be desirable for a gifted education quality standard to explicitly advocate grade-skipping, so making it in effect a universal requirement, even though grade-skipping may be perfectly permissible within the terms of the standard.

Sometimes researchers can take the opposite track. I well remember resistance to our classroom quality standards (see below) on the grounds that such a standard would be based by definition on one pedagogy, so preventing other pedagogies from being freely expressed in the classroom!

Such a criticism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the flexible framework paradox.

By virtue of being a consensual compromise, a single framework can support many different outcomes, whereas a more tightly-drawn document could not reconcile the very different objectives of stakeholders.

But, even with this principle of flexibility, quality standards have a limited shelf life. Once the gifted education paradigm has shifted significantly, or wider education policy has undergone radical reform – perhaps as a consequence of the election of a new government – they need to be revised and updated, given a new lease of life.

Otherwise they will ossify gifted education by holding practitioners to outdated assumptions of what constitutes effective practice.

Flexibility in Application

And a gifted education quality standard should be applied in a similar vein.

Because there is a need to break down provision into its constituent elements, often to define more than one level of performance and invariably to ensure that the resulting tool is readily accessible, quality standards are typically published as a grid.

The rows and columns might suggest precision and tight specification, but closer analysis should reveal a more elastic approach.

In constructing standards containing different levels, it is not imperative to maintain consistency of approach between the levels. Statements relating to the same element at a higher level can be cumulative – covering the same issue but with extra ‘demand’ built in – or they can add greater breadth by introducing another related issue, or they may do both simultaneously.

Settings should be encouraged not to apply the standards to their practice with a slavish ‘tick-box’ mentality. The process of discussing and agreeing which ratings apply in a particular setting is at least as important as the outcome, quite probably more important, because it invites communication and supports the building of consensus.

Moreover, reaching an overall judgement is not a matter of calculating an overall ‘score’ which determines a given category: settings should use discretion and professional judgement to reach a ‘best fit’ judgement which they can collectively agree and which is supported by the evidence.

Varieties of Gifted Education Quality Standard

Quality Standards can be categorised according to three key variables:

First, the layer of the education system to which they apply

Standards may be applied to:

  • learning settings (I am using this term in preference to ‘classroom’ in recognition that such a standard may be fully applicable to out-of-hours and out-of-school learning);
  •  institutions – most typically schools, but we opted to call our whole-school standards ‘institutional quality standards’ (IQS) in recognition that they should apply equally to colleges of further education, nursery schools, pupil referral units (PRUs) and so on;
  • local authorities, or school districts, or indeed any other grouping of several institutions, regardless of whether it is based on geography or some other relationship. So, for example, a ‘local authority quality standard’ could apply just as well to a chain of academies or charter schools;
  •  regional, state or national gifted education programmes and services. Although none exist as far as I am aware, I have argued before on this blog that the development of a national – more exactly an international quality standard – would be an important step towards effective international collaboration.

Second, the levels of performance that they specify

  • some standards have a single level, typically pitched to be reachable by all settings, or almost all settings, allowing for the fact that there will always be some outliers – such as failing schools – that we should not seek to accommodate;
  • others have two levels – typically a baseline standard and a standard for advanced or exemplary performance to which all settings should aspire and which some centres of excellence will be able to achieve;
  • others still have three levels, inserting a level for improving settings between the entry and exemplary levels, so providing an extra step in the ladder to support a process of steady but continuous improvement (though it should be possible for settings to continue working at their current level if they prefer and, certainly, there should be no ceiling on the top level, so even the very best schools can never say that they have ‘completed’ a standard).

I know of no gifted education quality standards with more than three declared levels, though a couple get close to specifying five, as we shall see later.

Third, the core purpose(s) of the standard

  • If a standard is intended primarily as an instrument for self-review, or external assessment, rather than the ideal of a multi-faceted instrument with several different purposes, it will look somewhat different;
  •  It is critical to understand that a quality standard cannot have as one of its purposes the assessment of personal competence. Personal competence frameworks are entirely different animals, necessary to personal training and development and to performance management.

Quality standards are fundamentally school (institutional) improvement tools. They should align with personal competence frameworks, and both should inform professional development (because one is about the acquisition and demonstration of personal knowledge, understanding and skills; the other about the application of that knowledge and skills to bring about institutional improvement).

 This distinction is sometimes difficult to maintain, particularly when a quality standard is pitched at the level of classroom settings, but it is important to recognise that, even there, many other factors than personal competence will affect the quality of education provided, most obviously if there is one or more para-professionals present. A quality standard should reflect the cumulative impact of all inputs and processes, not just the single teacher.

The History of Quality Standards

This map shows the geographical spread and the historical development of gifted education quality standards taking account of all of which I am aware. All are available in the English language, which makes comparison that much easier.

1998: The first gifted education standards were produced, under the auspices of the US National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) by an 18-strong task force. They applied at the school district level and applied the following principles, which begin to embody some (but not all) of the ideas set out above:

  • Standards should encourage but not dictate approaches of high quality;
  • Standards represent requisite programme outcomes and standards for excellence;
  • Standards establish the level of performance to which all educational school districts and agencies should aspire;
  • Standards represent professional consensus on critical practice in gifted education that almost everyone is likely to find acceptable;
  • Standards are observable aspects of educational programming and are directly connected to the continuous growth and development of gifted learners.

2005: Originally conceived in 2003, influenced in part by the NAGC standards, but envisaged from the outset as a school-level tool, the original English Institutional Quality Standards were developed, trialled and consulted on by a small team of consultants working with the support of an expert advisory group and eventually published in 2005.

The original User Guide embodies much of the thinking that we developed from the initial idea, which first emerged from a series of discussions between yours truly and the first director of NAGTY’s Student Academy.

The IQS were updated in 2010 though changes were fairly minimal.

The institutional standards were followed by classroom quality standards (CQS) in 2007, which amplified the teaching and learning dimensions of the IQS and applied them to learning settings rather than to whole school practice.

The CQS were conceived as a scaffolded support tool with three different layers, each undertaking a subtly different function.

  • The first layer was designed as a set of prompts to encourage reflection and discussion by classroom teachers of the application to all learners of seven key features of challenge and support within teaching and learning.
  • The middle layer applied these features specifically to gifted learners and provided a basis for a more thorough self-evaluation process. This is initially conducted within a generic rather than a subject-specific context, but a subject-specific treatment was also provided for English, maths, science, ICT and PE.
  • The third layer was originally envisaged as a comprehensive online resource base containing exemplification, case studies, action research and interactive discussion, predominantly provided ‘from the bottom up’, not least to exemplify the ownership and shaping of these standards by the professionals using them.

In 2009, the set of English quality standards was completed with the introduction of local authority quality standards (LAQS) – analagous to the US district standards, but based on the assumption that the role of local authorities is, first and foremost, to support the improvement processes instigated by schools.

All subsequent standards developed outside the US were influenced to some extent by the IQS:

  • the Quality Standards in Education for More Able and Talented Pupils published in 2008. These weredeveloped by the Welsh Assembly Government in collaboration with NACE and based on NACE’s Challenge Award, a commercially available standard which emerged at about the same time as the IQS (each informed the other’s development). The Challenge Award materials cost £250 while assessment costs from £700 to £1,900+ depending on the size of the school;
  • the self-evaluation instrument published in New Zealand in 2009 (though this was also informed by several earlier versions developed in that country);
  •  the assessment instrument developed in Saudi Arabia for the Mawhiba Schools Partnership in 2009 (though it also drew on professional standards for teachers and research on school effectiveness).

NAGC radically revised and updated its US district standards in 2010.

A working group undertook the work, according to a new (and rather curious) set of principles:

  • ‘Giftedness is dynamic and is constantly developing; therefore, students are defined as those with gifts and talents rather than those with stable traits.
  • Giftedness is found among students from a variety of backgrounds; therefore, a deliberate effort was made to ensure that diversity was included across all standards. Diversity was defined as differences among groups of people and individuals based on ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, gender, exceptionalities, language, religion, sexual orientation, and geographical area.
  • Standards should focus on student outcomes rather than practices. The number of practices used or how they are used is not as important as whether or not the practice is effective with students. Consequently, the workgroup decided not to identify acceptable versus exemplary standards. Moreover, such a distinction would be difficult to support with the research.
  • Because all educators are responsible for the education of students with gifts and talents, educators were broadly defined as administrators, teachers, counsellors, and other instructional support staff from a variety of professional backgrounds (e.g., general education, special education, and gifted education).
  • Students with gifts and talents should receive services throughout the day and in all environments based on their abilities, needs, and interests. Therefore, the Workgroup decided to use the word “programming” rather than the word “program,” which might connote a one-dimensional approach (e.g., a once-a-week type of programme option)’.

Source: ‘Frequently Asked Questions about the 2010 pre-K-Grade 12 Gifted Programming Standards’

Most of these are unexceptionable, though the last two are perhaps a little prosaic to be regarded as ‘principles’ in their own right. The section in bold is the most problematic.

For, while the new standards quite reasonably include student outcomes, they continue to include a whole range of practices alongside. There is nothing on the face of the standards – or in the guidance available on NAGC’s website – to suggest that the practices are intended to be illustrative rather than binding.

Indeed, the Q and A explains that:

‘The revised standards will elucidate the next steps toward excellence in gifted programming by helping school districts move beyond the focus on practices alone to the relationship between certain practices and desired student outcomes’

It is as if the group developing the standards has been persuaded of the case for a flexible framework, has considered offering maximum flexibility by basing its framework on student outcomes alone, only to decide that ‘evidence-based practice’ must be included alongside so that users of the standards can anchor their effective practice in inputs and processes as well as outcomes.

The two-fold justification for removing the exemplary level is even more puzzling. Presumably, had they wished to, they could have defined ‘exemplariness’ entirely in terms of student outcomes.

There is no explanation of why ‘the research’ would not easily support the exemplary distinction. One can only conclude that the researchers engaged on this project found it impossible to agree, on the basis of aggregated research findings, a framework to define flexibly what constitutes exemplary practice in gifted education.

If so, that is a sad indictment of the contribution of the gifted education research community. It suggests to me that researchers may have had too much control of the revision process relative to other stakeholders.

The documentation does not say whether the working group examined international examples of quality standards before revising their own.

Let us hope that they did, for neglecting to review and learn from other models would not be consistent with good research practice – and also runs counter to the fundamental principles upon which this blog rests!

Actually I think the 2010 Standards are rather good, though some way from my idea of perfection…


November 2011

Mawhiba: Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia (Part Two)

This is the second part of a two-part post on Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme. Part One is here.

In the first instalment we looked briefly at the history of gifted education in Saudi Arabia and the references to it in the country’s Ninth National Plan before reviewing three online documents relating to Mawhiba and its parent Foundation.

Part Two takes a closer look at how the structure of Mawhiba has developed, particularly the Mawhiba Schools Partnership, and offers a provisional assessment of progress.

Picture courtesy of S Raj

The Five Strands as Seen by McKinsey

We need to return to the original Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation to get a fuller treatment of the five strands of activity they advocated for the Mawhiba Project itself.

Mawhiba Schools Partnerships are not quantified by the number of schools involved, but McKinsey envisages that they will benefit 550 gifted pupils in 2008, 1,700 in 2009, 4,500 in 2010 and 6,600 in 2011.

Provision in these partner schools should include a common programme for all learners up to Grade 3 and, in Grades 4-12, a blend of separate classes for G&T students and mixed ability classes for all students, with admission of students into the gifted cohort following a selection process undertaken in Grades 4 and 7.

The Foundation is advised that schools need incentive systems to manage the performance of their leadership, and that mechanisms should be in place to ensure that disadvantaged students are not excluded.

Action is therefore required to:

  • develop and administer intelligence and creativity tests to select students;
  • design curricula to nurture giftedness and creativity and support schools in their implementation;
  • train teachers to teach gifted classes and principals to lead Mawhiba schools;
  • set standards for partner schools, select the schools and monitor compliance with the standards;
  • develop a funding model for the schools linked to the student and/or the teacher; and
  • establish a parental support unit to secure continued parental engagement in their children’s education.

The enrichment programmes will be introduced gradually over the full 15-year period. There will be:

  • after-school programmes covering Grades 4-12, with admission on the basis of interest but continuation on the basis of performance;
  • summer programmes, also covering grades 4-12, but open to students from partnership schools and other schools, though eligible students must have passed stage 1 of the Mawhiba selection process. These will be the flagship of the enrichment dimension in the first 5 years; and
  • competitions and awards covering grades 1-12 and university that are entirely open access.

The Young Leadership and Scholarship Programme should be open to all students entering their final year of high school, with selection based on prior academic performance, submitted essays and interviews. It should provide summer internship opportunities at top Saudi and international companies, supported by an online job portal and career guidance sessions.

There should also be: programmes to build language and entrepreneurial skills and offer research seminars with experts in various fields; mentoring provided by academics or industrialists, including regular 1:1 and group meetings; and scholarships to study at top international universities, as well as support with the applications process.

The Creative Work Environment initiatives will share best practice on nurturing creativity in the workplace by raising awareness, developing best practice material and providing training and workshops

The communications strategy involves getting stakeholders to endorse the strategy, building awareness and understanding across society and growing Mawhiba’s reputation as a national strategic organisation.

Outcome targets are defined in terms of numbers participating in each strand. Targets for the end of the initial five year plan are given as:

  • 6, 600 gifted learners in school partnerships
  • 5,000 suitably-qualified participants in enrichment programmes
  • 2,000 eligible students in the young leaders and scholarship programme

so 13,600 beneficiaries in all. (This is broadly similar to the 14,000 cited in the Ninth National Development Plan).

Some fairly dubious assumptions are then deployed to claim that, overall, some 28,000 different students will benefit by the end of this first phase, and that the programme will impact on 10 times as many people in all if one counts the gifted students’ fellow pupils and their families. This helps to give the impression that the programme is bigger than it first appears.

To achieve these outcomes it will be necessary for the Foundation to:

  • undertake concept development – co-ordinating activity across domestic and international partners;
  • commission programme delivery through implementation partners, setting performance targets and managing partners against them;
  • secure funding from sponsors and allocate it between projects; and
  • communicate with and secure buy-in from key stakeholder groups and co-ordinate an awareness-raising campaign.

Picture courtesy of Shabbir Siraj

The structure today

One can find online copies of several tenders for aspects of the Mawhiba programme (though not all of them) but they are not particularly informative, containing only the briefest outline of the programme itself.

The most recent, for the Young Leaders’ Programme , was dated 30 April 2011 (though I found it online a week or so before that date). It describes the five strands as follows:

  • ‘Mawhiba School Partnerships – work with top private and public schools to introduce a special curriculum for gifted students from Grades 4-12. Schools entering the partnership will receive support to upgrade their curriculum and physical infrastructure and to better train their teachers to deliver advanced curriculum to gifted and talented pupils. Key activities include curriculum design, teacher and principal standards and training, school selection and accreditation, student assessment, and parental support.
  • Mawhiba enrichment programs – develop summer and after-school programs and support competitions and awards for school-age students. Components of these programs that the selected partner will have to support include developing program content and policies, selection of training and staff, providing technical support and documentation.
  • Mawhiba Young Leaders Program – develop a program for students in their final year of school to bridge the gap between academic study and professional life. Objectives of the program will be to provide students with internship opportunities, mentorship programs, skill-building programs, and scholarships to top international universities.
  • Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative – Develop and promote creativity in the Saudi workplace by raising awareness and offering creativity diagnostic tools, developing and sharing best-practice materials and conducting trainings and workshops with companies.
  • Mawhiba student selection – Develop and administer tests for selecting students for Mawhiba programs. In addition, develop process for selecting the students and support the process through means such as training of staff and expert advisers.’

The first four are pretty much as designed by McKinsey, but the final strand has emerged from under the wing of the Schools Partnerships and grown in significance, reflecting the separate reference to selection tests in the 2009 Brochure.

It is as if everyone has been committed throughout to a five-fold structure for Mawhiba, but no-one could quite agree what should constitute the fifth and final element!

Incidentally, the tender envisages a pilot for the Young Leaders Programme involving just 100 participants, so a long way short of the 2,000 projected by McKinsey for 2012/2013.

Selection Tests, Enrichment and Research

The growing emphasis on selection tests within these overarching descriptions of Mawhiba seems rather at odds with the ‘human capital’ approach described in Room at the Top:

‘KSA believes that it is most likely to develop this critical mass not through selection of a few students and special programmes or schools, but rather through the high performance approach – through the creation of high expectations in school, coupled with systematic nurturing of the advanced cognitive performance characteristics in students. By introducing advanced cognitive performance from an early age they expect to ensure that those with the capacity to excel will do so.’ (pp 48-49)

It seems that Mawhiba places some importance on building schools’ capacity to provide advanced educational opportunities and encouraging all pupils to achieve them. But there are also selection tests to identify a gifted cohort who are eligible for Mawhiba activities, presumably including scholarships to attend Mawhiba schools.

The emergence of this emphasis on student selection can be tracked back to a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the Foundation and the National Centre for Measurement and Evaluation. The two parties agreed to work together to develop and standardise a new test battery to identify gifted and creative students.

Earlier this year, reports suggested that this would expand into a ‘national project to identify gifted students’, beginning with pupils in Grades 3 to 9 in 16 regional education administrations, but expanding into a comprehensive national database of all gifted students in the Kingdom.

According to one report this project will use ‘the NAGC standards of identification’ as the basis for developing generic identification tools and procedures and related training for staff who use them. But the references on the Mawhiba site appear to suggest that identification will be confined to science and technology

Meanwhile there are various newspaper reports outlining the continuing expansion of the enrichment programme, especially the summer schools component.

In 2010, there were 27 domestic summer schools in science and technology, all of 2-4 weeks’ duration, provided by 22 different universities, colleges and research centres. They were attended by 1,369 students drawn mostly from Grades 5 and 6 and Grades 9-11.

Sixty were based at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), which offered courses in computer programming, mechanics and maths taught by university lecturers.

A further 83 students attended international summer schools held at venues such as Cambridge, Johns Hopkins (CTY), MIT and Oxford.

McKinsey forecast 5,000 participants by 2012/2013. It is not clear whether other smaller-scale enrichment activities have put Mawhiba within reasonable striking distance of this projection.

The Mawhiba website suggests there has been some progress towards the second specific objective identified in the Ninth National Development Plan. The research and policy unit will include among its responsibilities:

  • Developing and maintaining a database of information about gifted education in the Kingdom, including quantitative data about the performance and progress of gifted students;

  • Developing written policies for all aspects of the programme; and

  • Undertaking evaluation of different initiatives, defining performance indicators where necessary

Picture courtesy of Johnrawlinson

The Development of School Partnerships

As far as I can establish, the Mawhiba Schools Partnership (MSP) began with 19 schools, increased by 17 in 2010 to 36 schools and is expected to reach 60 schools by June 2013. All Partnership schools are currently located in Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam.

There were originally 250 scholars spread between the initial 19 schools. The 36 schools currently involved are said to serve 600-700 pupils, depending on the source. These are presumably those Mawhiba Scholars who have successfully passed the selection tests identifying the top 3%. Thiis dimension of the project is therefore undershooting significantly the numerical projections proposed by McKinsey in 2007.

We have extensive information about the process for selecting MSPs because the ‘School Selection Handbook 2009/10’ is available online.

It begins by setting out the objectives underpinning MSPs, which are to:

  • Select the schools capable of joining the Partnership and willing to ‘fulfil the vision’;

  • Support to improve these schools’ effectiveness at developing their students’ creativity and giftedness, so securing high performance;

  • Support the introduction of an ‘advanced supplementary curriculum and assessment framework’ designed to develop advanced learners, future leaders and creative entrepreneurs;

  • Introduce a contemporary pedagogy to develop the skills necessary for high performance and entry to world-class universities;

  • Offer professional development and support provided by international and local experts and through collaboration between member schools;

  • Select gifted and creative students who will receive scholarships to attend a member school; and

  • Ensure that parents are involved as partners in their child’s education.

Three different levels of membership are described: member, partner and advanced partner. All schools join as members but can then apply for accreditation as partners or advanced partners.

Much of the handbook is taken up with a Standard for Selection based on ‘international research into the characteristics of effective schools’ because:

‘providing a world class education system leading to high performance for the most able students requires integrated provision not just a bespoke programme for a minority of students’.

The standard has been informed by the work of Sammons and McGilchrist, two UK researchers, and benchmarked against international standards including ‘Ofsted UK, Investors in People UK, Professional Standards for Teachers in the USA and Australia and the Quality Standards for Gifted and Talented Education DfES, UK‘.

Selection depends on schools meeting eight standards: Student Achievement, Leadership and Management, School Ethos, Teaching and Learning, Classroom Management, Student Personal Development; Parental Involvement and Commitment. Each is assessed on a four-point scale:

1 – excellent

2 – good

3 – developing

4 – limited

Member schools need to achieve a minimum of ‘3 – developing’ on every standard except Commitment, for which they need to be rated ‘2 – good’.

Schools are invited to express interest, then submit a self-evaluation form. An external evaluator visits the school and the leadership team is expected to offer a presentation that demonstrates their commitment. There is also: observation of classroom teaching; discussions with the leadership team, teachers, students and parents; and analysis of students’ work and assessments.

These external evaluations are moderated before successful schools are selected by a ‘Mawhiba Strategy Group’. They must sign a formal Agreement, while unsuccessful schools receive feedback on how to improve. The handbook says the Panel will also take into account the balance between boys’ and girls’ schools, the geographical location and the ‘required number of places for Mawhiba scholars’.

Partner schools need to achieve a minimum of ‘2 – good’ on every standard. They must submit a further application and self-evaluation form for this purpose providing evidence of progression since the school became a member.

The evaluation also draws on other evidence including: orientation of Mawhiba Scholars, implementation of the advanced supplementary curriculum, feedback from consultants and co-ordinators, lead professional weekly reports, parents’ forums and the outcomes of an annual evaluation review. There is a further site visit followed by moderation and final judgement.

Advanced partner schools must already be partner schools, actively engaged in training other schools and achieve ‘4- excellent’ in Leadership and Management, Teaching and Learning and at least two further standards.

Applicants must supply, alongside a further self-evaluation: a case study exemplifying in-school training and development; evidence of professional development through networking; and an outline of how they plan to support and challenge other schools.

The site visit includes a formal interview with the leadership team and analysis of the two Standards that the school has nominated as excellent. There is again moderation before the Strategy Group take a final decision.

Progression through these tiers is slow since, other than in exceptional cases, member schools cannot apply to become partners until the have been in the project for two years – and must wait a further two years to apply for advanced partner status. Moreover, the status achieved must be re-accredited every three years.

Schools are requested to apply annually to become members. The handbook refers to ‘a range of incentives’ to encourage them but does not spell these out, referring readers instead to the Mawhiba website.

To a UK reader this comes across as excessively bureaucratic, heavily structured and top-down, suggesting that the team is not confident of schools’ capacity to self-evaluate. The process requires extensive evidence and, so a heavy investment of time and effort by the school. The demands on assessors’ time will also be significant.

This is not of itself a scalable and sustainable model and one might reasonably expect that ‘advanced partner schools’, once they come on stream, might take on some of the responsibilities currently undertaken by external consultants.

Outstanding Mawhiba Teachers and Leaders

There are separate and parallel accreditation processes for individual teachers and school leaders, known as the Outstanding Mawhiba Teacher Award (OMTA) and the Outstanding Leadership Mawhiba Teacher Award (OMTLA).

According to the 2010-11 Handbook for these,staff in MSP schools can benefit from:

  • Professional development including courses accredited towards a Masters Degree by the London University, Institute of Education (The London Centre for Leadership in Learning confirms in its Prospectus that it is engaged in designing and leading these programmes);

  • Specialised courses for science, maths, ICT and English teachers provided by international experts;

  • ongoing in-school support for all staff and parents by Mawhiba City Co-ordinators (MCCs) including training and support for nurturing giftedness and creativity in the context of whole school improvement;

  • training in the effective use of the advanced supplementary curriculum (ASC) ‘authored by World Class Arena (WCA) international curriculum development experts’; and

  • the OMTA and OMTLA, each based on a defined standard.

The OMTA Standard:

‘defines what an individual teacher needs to do in order to achieve the world class standards of education which Mawhiba Schools aspire to achieve’.

It too is based on international research – the work of Hattie and England’s TDA’s Professional Standards (currently under review) are particularly cited. It signifies that:

‘a teacher has been recognised as an expert teacher within a Mawhiba school and has consistently fostered high levels of performance in students through use of a range of effective, contemporary teaching and learning approaches’.

The OMLTA signifies:

‘that a teacher has been recognised as an expert teacher, as outlined above, but has also shown skills and expertise in leading others – within and across schools – to develop their practice in fostering high performance through use of the most effective contemporary teaching and learning approaches’.

The standards appear to be very demanding, as a Blog kept by a newly-appointed assessor reveals:

‘Last year only 3 out of 30 candidates won this award as they have to meet international standards. Thank goodness the final OMTA decisions are made back in the UK as I have to work with the Dammam teachers after the fact.’

Picture courtesy of Johnrawlinson

The Advanced Supplementary Curriculum (ASC)

We also have information about the ASC. A ‘white paper’ dated April 2009 is available online called ‘Designing a Programme for Giftedness and Creativity in Mawhiba Partnership Schools‘.

The preface says this: ‘brings together the best international practice and three decades of experience from leading work in this area in the United Kingdom’.

It suggests five underpinning principles for curriculum development:

  • High quality educational opportunities help to enabling gifted and creative students to demonstrate high performance.

  • While gifted students do not possess ‘unique learning strategies’, they are more creative and draw to a greater extent on a repertoire of intellectual skills. They deploy metacognition, strategy flexibility, strategy planning, hypothesis, preference for complexity, extensive webbing of knowledge about facts and processes.

  • We should aim to create autonomous and empowered learners who demonstrate extensive: subject knowledge and understanding, skills, values, attitudes and attributes.

  • Curriculum is supported through assessment for learning that monitors student progression enabling students to plan next steps with their teachers in the light of their personal strengths and weaknesses.

  • Provision must lead to qualifications that enable students to progress to leading universities.

It indicates that the ASC will be designed to help students develop expertise in maths, science, ICT and English, but also to generate the:

‘learning behaviours that will enable them to develop the high level knowledge, skills and concepts associated with expert performance in these specific subject domains and more generically’.

Students in Grades 4-10 will undertake the supplementary curriculum alongside their normal curriculum; those in Grades 11-12 will follow courses leading to internationally recognised qualifications.

This will be undertaken through a series of curriculum materials, supported by age-related ‘curriculum progression standards’ (Other material online suggests that Mawhiba Scholars need to achieve in line with these standards each year in order to stay on the programme.)

Learning activities will provide challenge through high expectation and enquiry based approaches that develop analytical, critical and creative thinking skills. Assessment will monitor the overall effectiveness of the programme as well as the progress made by students.

The broad approach to curriculum is illustrated by a table which is also published separately as a poster on the World Class Arena website.

The timetable for the publication of the materials is phased, so that those for Grades 4, 7 and 10 are produced first, followed presumably by Grades 5, 8 and 11 in the second year and then Grades 6, 9 and 12 in the third. All the curriculum materials published to date (Grades 4, 7 and 10 only at the time of writing) are available here including the Teachers’ Guides.

Provisional Conclusions

It has not been easy to gather together the information for this post. Given the wide variety of sources (some more reliable than others) and the tendency for key facts to be ‘lost in translation’, I hesitate to offer any meaningful assessment of either the scope of Mawhiba or the progress that has been made.

It is important to remember that we are only in the fourth year of a 15-year plan. It will take considerable further effort to realise the ultimate ambition of:

‘A creative society with a critical mass of gifted and talented young leaders who are innovative, highly educated, and well trained to support the sustained growth and prosperity of the Kingdom.’

However, the early stages seem to be progressing at a slower pace than envisaged in McKinsey’s five-year plan and the numbers of beneficiaries are also significantly lower.

There is a huge gap to bridge between 700 pupils in 36 Mawhiba School Partnership schools and a national programme that directly benefits 3% of the Saudi school population – around 140,000 pupils spread across some 26,000 schools – and indirectly benefits all of their fellow learners.

The design is hugely ambitious but the practical delivery to date does not yet begin to match it. The 14,000 participant target in the Ninth Development Plan looks a ‘big ask’. The subsequent roll-out process will be critical and very demanding, and it will depend heavily on the urgent development of sufficient homegrown Saudi capacity to support it.

There has clearly been enormous investment in the design of support systems for schools but, even if we assume that all pupils benefit, not just the identified 3%, the current unit cost per pupil must be unsustainable even for a country as rich as Saudi Arabia.

It is surprising that Mawhiba seems to remain entirely separate from the wider Tatweer education reform strategy. One might anticipate that a siloed gifted education programme is much less likely to succeed. Surely Tatweer and Mawhiba need to be brought into a closer relationship than is apparent at present.

I could trace no formal evaluation of the Foundation’s performance or of the progress to date on Mawhiba. Evidently it is not customary for Saudis to appear critical of any initiative which carries the name of their King.

Only one commentator is prepared to offer a public critique of Saudi progress on gifted education more generally.

In a presentation called ‘The Benchmarks of Gifted and Talented Education in Saudi Arabia’ given to an international conference in Abu Dhabi in October 2010, Dr Maajeeny, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at King Abdul Aziz University (KAU), says most parents, professionals and other stakeholders are not satisfied with progress to date because:

  • only a few gifted students are identified and less than half of those can access provision;

  • testing is of questionable quality and there is too much small scale practice rather than ‘systematic scientific services’;

  • there are too few qualified teachers concentrated in a small number of schools and too few researchers with expertise in the field;

  • there is limited funding available, limited training and few incentives to encourage staff to engage with gifted programmes;

  • attention is confined almost exclusively to STEM subjects; older students and adults are not properly served and pre-school services are not yet available;

  • public awareness is limited, while officials and administrators lack enthusiasm and some are reluctant to accept changes to accommodate the needs of gifted learners; and

  • effective co-ordination between service providers is ‘still random and primitive’.

This view an expert may be contrasted with the picture painted in the article I referenced earlier about educational progress in Saudi Arabia more generally.

This suggests that wider education reforms are facing active resistance from powerful conservative religious interests and that they are at risk of being sidelined as a consequence of changes in national leadership.

Final thoughts

While progress may be perceived as too slow by those who understand and support the initiative – and by the gifted learners who stand to benefit – the conservative faction in Saudi society will have the opposite view.

Which is why effective communication, consultation and awareness-raising are going to be so critical to the success of Mawhiba.

Will the Kingdom be able to introduce a full national programme for gifted and creative education, or will it always be a supplementary pathway, confined to relatively few forward-thinking schools?

The international competition is fierce. The Ninth National Plan reports that:

‘Efforts to foster talent, creativity, and innovation culminated with the Kingdom ranking 32 among 130 nations covered by the 2008 Global Innovation Index produced by the Business School for the World (INSEAD)’.

This is quite true, but the 2009-10 INSEAD rankings place the Kingdom 54th of 132 nations, a sizeable fall of 22 places. This position is retained in the 2010-11 rankings, with no deterioration, but no improvement either. Saudi Arabia is headed by neighbours like the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. If this is a reliable yardstick, then the Kingdom faces an uphill struggle to improve its relative international competitiveness.

Will Saudi Arabia successfully make the transition to a successful KBE, following in the footsteps of countries like Singapore and South Korea, or is it destined to remain with one foot in the present and the other anchored firmly in the past?

It is simply too early to say.


May 2011

Mawhiba: Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

This two-part post is intended to draw together the information available online about Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme.

Compiling the post has not been an easy task.

The Mawhiba website is oddly constructed. There are actually two parallel sites – one for Mawhiba and one for the Foundation that preceded and created it – though the latter frequently tips one back into the former. Several of the most significant pages on the Mawhiba side are still ‘under construction’.

The online architecture reflects the puzzling real-life relationship between the organisation overseeing Mawhiba (its full name is the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity) and Mawhiba itself.

Sometimes they are treated as quite distinct; sometimes as two sides of the same coin. Just occasionally the Foundation is also called Mawhiba. This can make it hard to interpret parts of the online narrative, particularly when they are generated by third parties whose relationship with either entity is unclear.

This third party material is also rather fragmented. Much of it has to be dredged up through exhaustive keyword searches. Significant chunks are in Arabic. While online translation tools struggle purposefully with the websites, they are not nearly so reliable when invited to tackle the PDFs that typically carry the important factual detail.

So preparing this material has required more detective work than usual. It has felt like piecing together a jigsaw with several missing pieces. I have drawn on all the material I could find at May 2011. If further documentation is published, or if readers have access to additional information that they can make publicly available, I cordially invite them to add it to the record in whatever way they prefer.

This is all rather surprising given the extensive involvement of international contractors in the design and delivery of Mawhiba, most of them working in English so presumably needing to have their work translated into Arabic.

It also shows up the limited depth and penetration of Mawhiba’s communications and awareness-raising strand, at least as far as the international audience is concerned.

The dearth of reliable information means that it is all too easy to underestimate or, conversely, to over-estimate the significance of what has been called:

‘the most comprehensive educational approach in the world to nurturing high performance and creativity’ (Room at the Top, page 48).

The real purpose of this post is to help us get Mawhiba properly into perspective.

Saudi Arabia and its Education System

We should begin with a short context-setting preface, to help those unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia and its education system to get their bearings.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the largest country in the Arabian peninsula and the 14th largest by area in the world. It covers a land mass similar in size to Western Europe, although over 95% is either desert or semi-desert.

Courtesy of NormanEinstein


The national population is about 26 million, but over 20% of them do not have Saudi nationality, including a huge influx of visiting workers. The capital city, Riyadh, has a population of 4.7 million. Other large cities such as Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Dammam have populations upward of 1 million apiece.

KSA is governed as a hereditary monarchy: since 2005 the King and Prime Minister has been Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz al Saud. (The Foundation that oversees Mawhiba was established by the King before he ascended the throne and he retained the role subsequently).

The country itself is named after the ruling family, which first assumed power in the 18th Century, although the Kingdom was founded as recently as 1932.

The education system comprises:

  • Kindergarten (ages 3-5) – non-compulsory and attended by about 11% of the relevant population;
  • Primary (ages 6-11 covering Grades 1-6). Children take the General Elementary School Certificate at the end of Grade 6;
  • Intermediate (ages 12-14 covering Grades 7-9). Pupils take the Intermediate School Certificate at the end of Grade 9; and
  • Secondary (ages 15-18 covering Grades 10-12). Students may attend a general, a religious or a technical secondary school. Those in general schools choose in their second year between three tracks: administration and social science, natural science, and shariah and Arabic studies. Technical schools may focus on industrial, commercial or agricultural studies.

Schools are segregated by gender but males and females follow the same curriculum and take the same examinations.

University students typically take a bachelor’s degree after four years of study. A master’s degree requires two further years and a doctorate three years more. Technical colleges and institutes offer courses leading to certificates and diplomas of up to three years’ duration.

The higher education sector has recently undergone rapid expansion and includes 24 public universities, 8 private universities and 45 technological colleges and technical institutes. There are 4,885 secondary schools, 7,826 intermediate schools and 13,626 primary schools. These serve some 450,000 teachers and around 4.6 million pupils.

(These figures are almost certainly already out of date but they serve as reasonable indicators of the relative size of the system.)

This US Embassy briefing provides additional accessible background material on education in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom is engaged in a major and many-stranded education reform process, also instigated by the King. This is called Tatweer (meaning ‘Development’) and has its own website in English.

This recent press report describes vividly some of the shortcomings of the Saudi education system that Tatweer is designed to address, its limited impact to date and the huge obstacles that it needs to overcome. It suggests that some of these reforms will take a decade or even a generation to come to fruition, and there is real scepticism over the prospects of success.

The other Western news articles here and here and the Saudi take here provide more background on the purpose and scope of Tatweer. There is also a detailed delivery plan available online, dating from 2009.

National Development Plans

Since 1970, the Saudi Government has set out in a series of detailed five-year plans how it expects to reform and improve every aspect of national performance.

The most recent plans, available in English on the website of the Ministry of Economy and Planning, show how thoroughly the Kingdom has dedicated itself to the development path of a knowledge-based economy (KBE). They also position the national investment in gifted education within that broader context.

The current Plan, the Ninth, covers 2009-2013. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the country’s development as a KBE:

‘A knowledge-based economy is defined as “an economy that is capable of knowledge production, dissemination and use; where knowledge is a key factor in growth, wealth creation and employment, and where human capital is the driver of creativity, innovation and generation of new ideas, with reliance on information and communication technology (ICT) as an enabler”. Moreover, there is a positive correlation and mutual interaction between the “knowledge society” and the “knowledge–based economy”. In addition, “knowledge” has become a critical requirement for enhancing competitiveness of countries in the twenty first century.

Theory, experience and present international practices affirm that contemporary global drivers of economic growth are different than in the past. More than ever before in human history, the economy is now dependent on the knowledge factor for growth. To respond positively to these developments and ensure enhancement of competitive capacities of the national economy, it is essential for economic policies to pay attention to knowledge….

The Eighth Development Plan focussed on fundamental developments that laid the basis for heading towards a knowledge-based economy. These included starting implementation of the first five-year plan of the Science and Technology National Policy; adopting the National ICT Plan, the National Industrial Strategy, and the Strategy and Plan for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation; establishing the Knowledge City in Medina, and the technical zone of the Saudi Organization for Industrial Estates and Technology Zones in Dammam; proceeding with preparation of a new strategy for higher education (AFAQ); and advancing privatization.

The Ninth Development Plan adopts the drive towards a knowledge-based economy through focussing on education, which disseminates knowledge, paving the way for knowledge transfer and accumulation and thereafter knowledge generation, and utilisation of knowledge in various economic and social sectors, particularly in production and service activities. Through these endeavours, the Plan seeks to enhance the comparative advantages of the economy, add to it new competitive advantages, diversify it, and increase its productivity and competitiveness, as well as create appropriate employment opportunities for citizens.’

It continues:

‘A knowledge-based economy is based on utilisation of the outputs of the knowledge system to create new products and services through innovation. Although, according to the Global Innovation Index, innovation in the Kingdom is still a significant challenge, a springboard for development of innovation has been put in place. For example, national industries have developed significantly over the past three decades, and now have strong bases of knowledge upon which to build towards the new economy, particularly with the adoption of the National Industrial Strategy, and its implementation mechanism that espouses knowledge-based economy, and the Strategy for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation.’

The remainder of the Chapter identifies a series of challenges that need to be overcome, one of which is:

‘Giftedness, creativity and innovation: Growing interest in developing talent, creativity and innovation has been manifested in the adoption of a National Strategy for Fostering Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation, the establishment of the King Abdul-Aziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity, and the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Nonetheless, more efforts are needed to enhance the thrust of the drive towards a knowledge-based economy, and achieve excellence in universities and higher-education institutes, as well as of scientists, technologists and innovators.’

The plan includes two targets specifically relating to gifted education:

‘Increasing the number of (male and female) students who benefit from “giftedness and creativity” initiatives, to reach around 14 thousand annually by the end of the Plan.’

and, in the chapter on education:

‘Establishing a research unit for the gifted and qualifying existing centres to enable them to design, develop and implement special programmes for the gifted’.

There is also a descriptive piece on Mawhiba in Chapter 21, on Science, Technology and Innovation.

A Brief and Approximate History of Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia

One source suggests that there have been three distinct stages in the history of Saudi gifted education:

  • development of the National Project for Identifying and Servicing the Gifted;
  • implementation of that National Project; and
  • establishing the King Abdul Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity.

Elsewhere, we learn that the ‘General Document of Educational Policy’, produced in 1970, included the following provision:

‘It is very important to discover and identify the gifted learners among all Saudi young children and youth, nurture them by all means to unveil their potentials, and pay extra attention and efforts to provide them with special programs and appropriate opportunities that can be integrated easily into the Country’s Public Educational System.’ (Rule 57)

This led to the introduction of academic competitions and exhibitions, annual awards and scholarships and small-scale research.

More concerted efforts were made from 1991 when researchers from King Saud University and officials from the Ministry of Education and the General Presidency for Girls’ Education secured funding from the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology for a five-year programme to develop identification tests and enrichment activities in maths and science.

During this period a Bachelor of Education Degree in Gifted Education was also established in the Faculty of Education at King Saud University.

The Ministry of Education subsequently commissioned members of the same team to establish a ‘Gifted Identification and Fostering Programme’ in selected schools in some of Saudi Arabia’s major cities. The male students’ programme started in 1997 and the female students’ programme a year later.

These programmes included teacher training, the administration of identification tests, the introduction and evaluation of enrichment activities, and efforts to raise parental and public awareness.

The Ministry established its own directorate for male gifted education in 1999/2000 and, two years later, a parallel directorate for female students. The director of the former is accountable to the Minister of Education (who is also deputy head of the King Abdul-Aziz Foundation).

The directorate for male gifted education includes separate units responsible for Nurturing and Enrichment Programmes, Planning and Training and Discovering and Identification. It brokers a series of enrichment activities and ‘gifted Nurturing Centers’. The female equivalent presumably has a similar structure.

The Origins of the Foundation

To support these efforts, the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity was founded in 1999, an independent non-profit organisation based in Riyadh and dedicated to identifying and supporting young gifted and talented Saudis. The King himself (then the Crown Prince) assumed the Presidency.

The Foundation was funded by King Fahad, the Crown Prince and other princes and businessmen. One source says that the total value of the Foundation is £50 million and that it also receives from the Government an annual running costs budget of about £2.5 million.

This record, reporting the first meeting of the Foundation, says that the King, the Crown Prince and Prince Sultan together donated 69 million Saudi Riyals (about £11.4m), 30 million was donated by the King, plus an annual one million Riyal contribution to ‘the King Abdul Aziz Organisation for the Care of Gifted Students’. The Crown Prince gave 29 million plus an annual grant of 500,000 Riyals and Prince Sultan a further 10 million Riyals.

Its original goals were to:

  • facilitate and foster giftedness, invention and creativity;
  • create professional pathways in medicine, environmental science, communication, education, the arts, telecommunication, engineering sciences and technology;
  • support and provide enrichment activities;
  • educate the population (parents, teachers and employers) about methods of nurturing gifts and talents; and
  • assist educational and professional institutions across the Kingdom to develop G&T education programmes.

Today the Foundation describes its mission thus:

‘To support the establishment and development of a creative environment and society so the talented and gifted individuals can harness and exploit their talents to serve the nation.’

And it identifies three main strategic goals: to nurture giftedness and creativity in both males and females; to support national abilities in generating innovative ideas; and to foster young, gifted and creative leaders in the field of science and technology.

Picture courtesy of FlickrJunkie

The Mawhiba Strategic Plan

Mawhiba, which literally means ‘gift’, ‘talent’ or ‘favour’ (and can be used as a name for either a boy or a girl) is essentially the Foundation’s 15-year strategic plan, launched in 2008 but prepared the previous year following an extensive consultancy by McKinsey and Company.

One used to be able to find online a Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation which appears to summarise the McKinsey work for the Foundation (but it seems to have been taken down since I first published this post).

The underpinning aspiration for the Project is expressed in terms of developing the infrastructure to support giftedness, creativity and innovation throughout the human life cycle. This initial ‘lifelong learning’ focus is almost immediately scaled back to focus on schooling, higher education and early working life.

The McKinsey team undertook extensive international benchmarking, a literature review and a domestic situation analysis. The benchmarking activity included a review of practice in 20 countries and 90 organisations as well as in-depth analysis of over 20 unnamed institutions in Finland, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK.

The situational analysis identified four key developments in the Kingdom:

  • increasing emphasis on knowledge-based industries, so increasing the demand for innovation;
  • a growing youth population leading to higher levels of youth unemployment;
  • (rather curiously) the admission of the USA to the World Trade Organisation in January 2005, leading to increased competition; and
  • more general international competition for highly-skilled workers, leading to a domestic shortage in KSA.

The presentation goes on to list several initiatives already introduced as a response to this scenario, explaining that Mawhiba will complement these by feeding the pipeline that supplies young gifted and talented leaders.

The long term vision, set 15 years ahead in 2022 is:

‘To be a creative society with a critical mass of gifted and talented young leaders who are innovative, highly-educated and well-trained to support the sustained growth and prosperity of the Kingdom.’

This vision is to be realised through three consecutive five-year plans, the first completed in 2012-13 (so broadly aligned with the Kingdom’s national 5-year plans).

During the initial 5-year phase, five priority initiatives are recommended:

  • Mawhiba school partnerships covering both the primary and secondary sectors;
  • Mawhiba enrichment programmes, involving summer schools and after-school activity for the primary and secondary sectors, plus competitions and awards that also extend into the HE sector;
  • Mawhiba Young Leaders and Scholarship Programme, designed for those in tertiary/higher education and the initial stages of employment;
  • Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative for those in the early stages of emplyment; and
  • an overarching awareness and communications initiative spanning the full age range apart from pre-school provision.

There is also reference to a research and policy unit that will offer cross-cutting support.

There is no explanation as to why none of the five initiatives address the pre-school phase: this is presumably set aside until the second five-year plan. A note confirms that there is no automatic transition between the four student-focused elements, each of which has separate selection criteria.

The presentation includes positive comments from several international experts consulted on the draft plan, but they counsel staged implementation, recommending the Saudis to draw initially on international expertise but to concentrate on building domestic capacity in the medium to long term.

The Mawhiba Brochure (2007 Edition)

One can trace the influence of this work on a Brochure subtitled ‘Special Issue for King Abdullah University for Science and Technology Inauguration 21 October 2007’.

It confirms that a ‘Strategy and Action Plan for Fostering Giftedness and Creativity’ has been developed by the Foundation in collaboration with McKinsey which prioritises the development of science, technology and leadership, but also personal and social skills.

It refers to five main components, but these are different to those described in the McKinsey publication. Instead we have reference to the Foundation’s existing portfolio of activities:

Programmes and services:

  • Mawhiba Summer Programmes – enrichment events of four weeks’ duration based in domestic and international universities. The summer schools will develop students’ cognitive abilities as well as personal, social and emotional skills. The initial series comprised 16 events catering for 550 students.
  • The ‘Imagine Service’ which aims to develop innovation in middle and high school students by encouraging them to develop their ideas with online feedback and support from experts in the relevant fields.
  • The ‘Shawer Service’ (I’m unclear why it is called this) which provides advice and counselling for gifted students, their parents and educators through an online service, a telephone helpline and face-to-face counselling.

Conferences and exhibitions: in 2006 the Foundation organised the ‘Scientific Regional Conference for Giftedness’ an international event to raise awareness of gifted education in the Kingdom and in the wider Arab world. In March 2008 it organised with Aramco the first Saudi Innovation Exhibition.

Competitions and awards. There is an annual award for scientific creativity designed for male and female innovators up to the age of 25 and two competitions in robotics.

The National Portal for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation for young people, their parents, teachers and educators. This is described as ‘an electronic oasis’ and is not expected to be in place until March 2008.

Finally there is a Customer Service Centre providing support for all those engaged in delivering the services above.

The Mawhiba Brochure (2009 Edition)

By 2009, the Brochure has undergone substantive revision, but there are still two competing sets of priorities. The five identified by McKinsey are stated very briefly but the second half of the Brochure is an updated version of the 2007 edition, once again outlining the existing Foundation work programme.

This perhaps suggests that the integration of the McKinsey plan into the existing work of the Foundation took some considerable time and no little effort to bring about.

In this version, the Foundation’s three fundamental objectives are essentially: improving and expanding the education offer for gifted learners; promoting society’s awareness of gifted education and creativity; and supporting the Kingdom’s sustainable development.

The document goes on to state several guiding principles that are said to emerge from these objectives:

  • (as per McKinsey) focusing on all phases of the education system and beyond into employment;
  • ‘nourishing the ambition of reaching a shortlist which includes the best 3% of all Saudi students’;
  • building and developing creativity, leadership, critical thinking and innovation and developing advanced skills maths, science and IT;
  • working in collaboration with any organisation or institution (public or private) that supports the vision;
  • the importance of admitting candidates from different backgrounds and from all sectors and categories of Saudi society; and
  • the need to raise awareness of Foundation programmes as well as wider issues relating to giftedness and creativity

There is still material about programmes and services, conferences and exhibitions, competitions and awards. The online portal has become the ‘National Electronic Gate for Giftedness and Creativity’

‘ It aims to provide the users with quality interactive services that enable them to communicate through educational games, a multi-media library, special forums, and chat groups’.

The fifth priority is changed to ‘education and enlightenment’ but there is no text to describe what it entails. Maybe this is McKinsey’s awareness-raising and communication strand.

The Brochure also explains that, in collaboration with the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) the Foundation has established a parallel unified Arab strategy for giftedness with a vision for 2025. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed and the strategy approved at a Tunisia conference in December 2008.

This involves:

  • Approving national strategies for the sponsorship of giftedness and creativity;
  • Assigning national agencies and institutions to undertake them;
  • Improving existing opportunities for educating gifted people and promoting society’s awareness of the importance of giftedness and creativity; and
  • contributing to targeted sustainable development in the Arab countries

I have found no subsequent update on this parallel pan-Arab strategy, which may or may not be proceeding.


May 2011.

Room at the Top: A New Direction for Gifted Education? (Part One)

This two-part post is a review and a critique of ‘Room at the Top: Inclusive Education for High Performance’, a Policy Exchange publication written by Deborah Eyre in April 2011.

Policy Exchange is a centre-right think tank in the UK. Deborah Eyre is Education Director with Nord Anglia Education, a UK-based company that operates twelve international schools and a range of learning services in the UK, Asia and the Middle East. These include a contract with the Mawhiba Schools Partnership, a substantial gifted education programme in Saudi Arabia.

From 2002 to 2007 Eyre was Director of England’s National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY). ‘Room at the Top’ draws significantly on her experience in that role and, subsequently, as an education consultant working particularly in the Far and Middle East.

The problem that the paper seeks to address is how to maximise the proportion of high performing learners in an education system, specifically the English education system.

I should say at the outset that I support entirely the broad thrust of the central argument. Many of the core messages are consistent with the views expressed on this blog over the past year.

I also have some fairly significant reservations about certain aspects of the treatment. I want to return to those in the second half of this post, but first I shall do my best to summarise the document, interspersing a commentary which raises these and several less substantive issues.

The Premiss

‘Room at the Top’ argues that parallel debates about improving system-wide performance and about supporting the most able pupils have mostly failed to connect with each other.

The former has neglected the latter, concentrating over-much on structures, while the latter has been preoccupied with ‘identifying a fixed and relatively small cohort with the ability to achieve… advanced levels of cognitive performance’, an approach which is unworkable.

A larger proportion of learners has the potential to achieve these advanced levels of cognitive performance but this demands consistently higher expectations and systematic nurturing of all learners, so improving system-wide performance.

The report has two broad recommendations:

  • That the English system is too preoccupied with achieving floor targets and mediocrity. Structural reforms are needed to the national curriculum, qualifications, the OFSTED inspection framework and performance tables to ensure we prioritise and celebrate high performance.
  • That the gifted and talented agenda has become marginal in many schools, but can be main-streamed by expecting high performance on advanced learning opportunities as the norm. This should be via a blend of in-class and school-based enrichment activities, as well as a range of informal learning opportunities.

Three paradigms of Gifted Education

‘Room at the Top’ charts three broad phases, or paradigms, in the development of gifted education over the past century.

First, a ‘Unique Individual Paradigm’, in place up to middle of last century, focused on a small number of unique individuals. The initial view was these few individuals had no relevance for thinking about education systems as a whole. There was no appreciation that giftedness could be influenced or developed.

Second, a ‘Cohort Paradigm’, surviving until the end of last century, which concentrated on identifying and selecting groups of gifted learners from amongst the general school population. Identification strategies developed from the use of IQ tests, introduced in the 1920s.

It was undertaken in the belief that these learners were different from their peers and so would benefit from being educated differently. At the same time, the cohort itself was assumed to be relatively homogeneous, with common learning needs.

This paradigm is associated with selective education as well as gifted programmes. There are significant benefits for those selected, relative to those who are not.

Third, a ‘Human Capital Paradigm’, introduced at the start of this Century, which switched focus to the educational conditions in which giftedness could be optimally developed.

This change is associated with a questioning of the assumptions underpinning selection, since:

  • longitudinal studies of high-performing adults demonstrate that they were rarely outstanding as children, casting doubt on the value of early identification;
  • there is a consistent bias within cohorts towards the affluent middle classes, although the few selected from poorer backgrounds achieve social mobility as a consequence;
  • beliefs about the nature of giftedness have shifted away from heredity and a single measure of intelligence. The majority now hold that it is a complex blend of nature and nurture, includes a motivational element and is not straightforwardly measurable;
  • research suggests that gifted learners deploy exactly the same learning strategies as their peers, only do so more creatively, implying that gifted education methods can potentially be applied universally;
  • labelling learners as gifted is perceived as unhelpful, if not for gifted learners then for those without the label, affecting their confidence and narrowing their learning horizons.

The ‘human capital paradigm’ is not primarily concerned with identifying gifted learners, but with the systematic nurturing of high potential across the system, by setting high expectations for all learners while also ‘encouraging excellence among any emerging elite performers’.

This nurturing process is undertaken in specific domains, in recognition that high performance is achieved in an individual’s specific areas of strength.

It works backwards from the ultimate goal – what is required to achieve expertise in the relevant domain – aiming to give learners the right blend of opportunities, support and encouragement to work towards that objective.

Some use ‘giftedness’ to describe the outcome of this process (as opposed to the starting point) or it can be called ‘high performance’ as it is throughout this publication.

The implications of the ‘human capital paradigm’ for education systems are that:

  • an (internationally) agreed definition of giftedness is no longer necessary;
  • it is unnecessary to pin down a cohort since the focus is on nurturing high performance in as many learners as possible;
  • this should be undertaken daily in the normal classroom through curriculum, pedagogy and a culture of high expectations;
  • the learner, his parents and mentors have a significant role alongside that of the school.

Unfortunately, while researchers have been influenced by developments in psychology and neuroscience, the public and policy makers alike remain stuck in the first of the two outdated paradigms.

Commentary I

The analysis raises several questions, such as whether:

  • Inclusion in a gifted cohort and entry to a selective school can be treated as two sides of the same coin in all respects. The latter denotes entirely separate education, normally for the duration of secondary schooling. The former does not typically involve separate education and is not necessarily a fixed, permanent arrangement.
  • Labelling can be avoided entirely in any approach, including the human capital paradigm, where excellence is recognised and celebrated. (The author argues later that learners should not be protected from over-demanding learning challenges. Much the same argument might be applied to labelling, since accepting there is always someone cleverer than you may be a valuable lesson in realism rather than a demotivating influence, especially if you know that the label isn’t necessarily denied you in future.)
  • The domain-specific approach of ‘expertise in development’ is an essential pre-requisite for the human capital paradigm. There is no clear justification for the relationship in the text – and it is hard to see the relevance of school subject expertise in strict human capital terms, since it is pretty unlikely that the learner will pursue the same field into undergraduate study and subsequent employment. Generic skills are surely more important, especially for younger learners in primary schools;
  • The distinction between enlightened researchers on one hand and gullible public and policy-makers on the other is quite as clear-cut as the text suggests. After all, there are still many academic apologists for the ‘cohort paradigm’ , as well as several more forward-thinking policy-makers!

Four Principles of a Human Capital Strategy

One can increase the proportion of high performers if the education system is refocused on different priorities. Four key principles are identified:

First, capitalise on any inherited predispositions. Although some learners are ‘gifted’ (ie ‘genetically predisposed to be more cognitively successful’) it is more important to develop the ability we all have rather than assessing which of us has relatively greater capability.

We do not yet fully understand the way environment impacts on inherited predispositions, but many more learners could benefit if given the opportunity. It is possible to overcome poor quality early years education and wrong to assume at any point in the education system that significant numbers of learners are unable to cope with advanced cognition.

Second, recognise the importance of families in providing a stable, encouraging environment. We need to help families to ‘nurture gifted behaviours’ by extending the benefits of parental involvement in middle class families to all learners.

Third, provide reasonable schooling. This is not as significant as the role of parents (and peers) because high performance ‘isn’t the same as being ‘school smart”. It is not just about passing exams, but also involves developing the skills that a domain-specific expert needs

Because high performance isn’t entirely dependent on the quality of schooling it is possible to compensate through parental support, personal motivation and informal learning. Hence it is not necessary to wait until all schools are high-performing.

On the other hand, good schools are typically better at facilitating high performance, so the more there are the better.

Fourth, instil a ‘growth mindset’ (the text does not actually employ this term, which is conspicuous by its absence). It is essential to help learners to understand that their educational performance lies in their hands.

While other cultures understand that trying hard is important, our practice of labelling and choosing cohorts suggests to learners that they cannot achieve beyond a certain level. Learners need to understand that their achievement is not dictated by their family background, their school, or where they live.

Commentary II

There is perhaps the basis for an equation here, parallel to that which the author herself now calls ‘the Eyre Equation’ (indeed does so earlier in this Paper):

High Performance =

(Capitalised) Inherited Ability

+ Family Support

+ (Effective) Schooling

+ Growth Mindset)

x All Learners

But the Paper is not particularly informative about the relationship between these four variables. Although it is suggested that schooling is less significant than often assumed, no empirical evidence is given to support this statement, or to quantify the relative weight attached to the other variables.

While the ideal is presumably to have all four in play, is it possible to compensate for any one that is relatively less secure? Any two? Any three? Are there essential minimum levels of given variables that need to be in place for individual high performance to have a reasonable chance of being realised?

In short, the limited treatment we are given begs many more questions.

It is surprising, too, that there is no real recognition of the sizeable potential impact of poverty on high performance, even if it is part of the hypothesis that this is too often used as an excuse. It is widely understood that the impact of poverty dwarfs the educational effects and really needs to be tackled directly.

The emphasis on keeping doors open at all stages is clearly antithetical to selection. So selective schools and ‘fixed’ gifted cohorts are inappropriate, but so is much setting practice (because the sets are too infrequently adjusted).

If we were to be purist about this it would not be acceptable to require a specified level of achievement to secure admission into a sixth form or, indeed, for admission to a given university course. While such an open access approach is laudable in theory, it is doubtful whether our education system could apply it consistently and with rigour.

This is surely more about a state of mind – and about being prepared to give learners second chances – than it is about the practical operation of the system.

Four Attitudinal Problems that England Must Overcome

The Paper identifies four sets of beliefs and assumptions that must be overcome if England is to maximise its proportion of high performing learners.

First, we hold outdated beliefs about ability and academic performance. There is still a widely-held view that ability is genetically determined, even though we also accept that there are some environmental factors in play. This belief is reinforced by putting 5-10% quotas on the gifted and talented population in schools for ‘society feels more comfortable with norm-referencing than criterion-referencing’.

Second, we mistakenly assume that we must choose between an education system focused on nurturing an elite and one that is effective for the majority. ‘We are always trying to be fair but sometimes this is at the expense of opportunity and excellence’. The political focus is on allocative fairness rather than on stretching all learners.

On the right this manifests as meritocratic fairness; on the left as ensuring that demographically representative populations get through. Both are mired in the false belief that only a fixed number can succeed.

We are preoccupied with floor targets.

‘We have created a system that requires that most pupils reach mediocrity and which asks schools to arrange their structures with this as the primary expectation’.

In an ideal world, shifting one student from A to A* would be as significant as shifting another from D to C. GCSE data is quoted showing that increases over time in the proportion of students gaining a B grade or above in each of maths and English is significantly lower than the increase in the proportion achieving a C grade.

Our broader cross-party consensus on the significance of the standards agenda in schools has outlived its usefulness, because it has become focused on raising average performance rather than encouraging more learners to reach advanced levels.

Third, we wrongly assume that large-scale social mobility is unattainable. International benchmarking studies show that our education system is relatively inequitable and we have come to believe that this is an insurmountable problem.

The demonstrable link between performance and socio-economic background has led us to conclude that learners from poor backgrounds cannot achieve highly. Schools limit opportunities, for example by restricting access to triple science, and getting a C grade represents the pinnacle of success.

Fourth, we wrongly believe we must protect learners from cognitively over-demanding work. There is a climate of false kindness in schools, but learners must be given the opportunity to try – and to fail.

Commentary III

Although a broadly accurate analysis, I would again question some of the detail:

  • I am not sure there is necessarily a logical connection between belief in genetic giftedness and a quota-based approach to gifted education. Moreover, it is wrong to suggest that quota-based populations are current Government policy, since schools are free to determine the size of their gifted and talented populations. This is evident from the very publication referenced to evidence the contrary statement in ‘Room at the Top’: ‘Identifying Gifted and Talented Learners – Getting Started (p. 1)
  • The emphasis within England’s approach to gifted education on securing G&T populations that are broadly representative in demographic terms is therefore less about allocative fairness and more about recognition that potential for excellence is found equally amongst learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and other underachieving groups. So it is consistent with the human capital paradigm and can support progress towards large-scale social mobility.
  • While there is other data to support the argument that schools have been concentrating on borderline grades at GCSE at the expense of higher grades – see for example my November 2010 post about STEM and high achievers which makes pretty much the same case – recent emphasis within our assessment processes on progression as opposed to raw attainment would suggest that this is already being addressed.
  • Similarly, the assertion that we believe social mobility to be an insurmountable problem isn’t really borne out by the emphasis given to improving it, both by the last Government and the current Coalition. Indeed, both have declared it a top priority.

Why High Performance is Important

The paper gives a brief treatment of the reasons for investing in talent: to fill talent gaps for high-level skills that are already evident and to enable England to compete in a globalised economy where highly-skilled workers are increasingly internationally mobile.

Other countries are already investing in developing their stock of high achievers and England cannot afford to lag behind. This requires a step-change rather than small-scale incremental improvement.

We should move beyond a ‘rescue mentality’ that benefits a few more disadvantaged learners. And we need to focus on competition with those in other countries rather than a ‘micro-preoccupation with who is in and who is out’.

The key to social mobility is raising our general level of expectation – in the highest-performing countries the ‘excuse’ of coming from a poor background is not accepted. Hong Kong is given as an example.

Commentary IV

This is very familiar territory for regular readers of this Blog and it would not be too difficult to strengthen the arguments in ‘Room at the Top’ by reference to the economics of gifted education, highlighting work by Hanushek et al on the economic value of cognitive development and also material about the cost of the ‘excellence gap’.

It would have been interesting and useful to have had an insight into the rationale by which different knowledge-based economies have made a link between gifted education and increasing the national supply of highly-skilled workers – and some treatment of the reasons why that connection has not been made in England.

I am not sure whether the economic arguments would justify a definition of high performance based primarily on expertise in subject domains. As we have noted already, relatively few learners study at university the subject they were best in at school and still fewer enter employment that requires expertise in the same discipline.

Moreover, HE and employers tend to be interested primarily in examination grades and (in the case of graduates) the perceived ‘quality’ of the institution at which those grades were obtained. They are engaged in ‘screening’ for the best candidates rather than worrying particularly about the value added by their education.

So far so good the, apart from some minor hiccups, but in Part Two of this post we begin to engage with the business end of ‘Room at the Top’, as well as the section – about the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth – that causes me the greatest difficulty. Stay tuned!


May 2011